Oregon climate bill dead, top Senate Democrats say

Source: By Hillary Borrud, Chris Lehman, and Ted Sickinger, The Oregonian • Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2019

“House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor,” Courtney, D-Salem, said after Democrats assembled for their morning roll call. “That will not change.”

He then ticked off a lengthy list of pending policy and budget bills, including protections for foster kids and schoolchildren, that he said have bipartisan support and wants to see passed when and if Republicans end their standoff.

Senate Republicans fled the state last week to block a vote on the carbon capping plan. Courtney appeared to be laying groundwork for Republicans to return, but it was not clear Tuesday that Republicans would agree to return to vote on other bills. Oregon lawmakers face a June 30 deadline to wrap up work under the state Constitution.

Democrats’ support for the climate bill had not been assured. Two Democrats voted against it in the House and Senate leaders scheduled a vote on it last Thursday knowing it might fail, said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland.

“As the person who counts the votes, my personal sense is that the votes were not there,” Burdick told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I was personally one of the ones who wanted this bill on the floor, because I wanted to raise my hand and say ‘yes.’ And we did not get that opportunity because they walked out.”

In response to a reporter’s question about why Senate Democrats didn’t whip their caucus into line, Burdick responded that “It doesn’t work that way.”

It did appear to work that way in the House in late May, when House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, took a 20-minute break after a bill to control public pension costs was initially voted down. After apparently twisting the arms of two representatives, Kotek reconvened and lawmakers narrowly passed the bill.

But whereas all lawmakers have public employees affected by the pension law in their districts, some lawmakers represent districts where major employers were particularly opposed to the climate bill.

“We all represent our districts and we all decide how to vote on bills,” Burdick said. “You know the public doesn’t often see it in as clear detail as this, but that’s what happened here.”

Democrats needed support from 16 of the 18 members of their Senate caucus in order to pass it. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, known to be opposed to it and Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, also expressed doubts, specifically about the bill’s impact on gas prices. As The Oregonian/OregonLive reported last week, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, was pushing for more concessions to offset the impact of the bill on electricity costs for Boeing, a large employer in her district. Monnes Anderson’s staff declined to comment Tuesday. Brad Reed, a spokesman for the environmental group Renew Oregon, said the senator “told us she was a ‘yes,’” but three well-placed Capitol sources affiliated with Democrats confirmed Monnes Anderson was the third hold-out.

During her 14 1/2 years in the Oregon Senate, Johnson has taken more than $100,000 from timber interests and $20,000 from farmers. Nearly 70 percent of the $1.3 million she raised in the last decade came from corporations. Roblan, who got less than half his money from corporations during that same period, has accepted $53,000 from timber interests.

The two are the only Democrats in Oregon’s senate who’ve taken money from Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch, who have worked to undercut action on climate change nationwide. Roblan and Johnson have each accepted $1,000 from the Kochs.

Monnes Anderson’s donor base is far different. Her largest funders include labor unions and the Democratic Party. Her only donation from Boeing was $500 in 2009.

Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said Courtney’s announcement came as a surprise to him and his caucus had not planned its response to the unanticipated development. However, he said there would be a lot of concern about a possible head fake by Democrats, and he noted a variety of procedural issues that would have to be addressed before Republicans would likely agree to come back to the Capitol.

Democrats also took time to react to Courtney’s statement Tuesday. Two hours passed before Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement. In it, she appeared to acknowledge the bill was dead.

“Senate Republicans have blocked a bill that provides a better future for our state and for our children, and the tactics they employed to do so are not just unacceptable, but dangerous,” Brown said, adding that Republicans were “moving us dangerously close to the self-serving stalemate in Washington, DC.”

“It’s now up to Republicans to prove me wrong,” Brown said. “Are they against climate change legislation or are they against democracy? If they are not back by Wednesday afternoon, we will know the answer.” Brown had declared on Monday that she would not negotiate with Republicans until they returned to Oregon.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, of Portland, weighed in on Twitter just before noon Tuesday, saying of Courtney’s statement that the climate bill was dead, “I believe him.”

“This has been a dark week for the integrity of the Legislature,” Kotek wrote. “Senate Rs have been threatening our democratic institution and subverting the will of Oregon voters who know we need to act now. Their walkout has come at immense cost to our institution and potentially the planet.”

A couple of Democratic senators also spoke to a crowd of supporters of House Bill 2020 on the front steps of the Capitol. “It is a very discouraging day,” said Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. “I have to beg you to keep going.”

“While we didn’t foresee this, we knew there’d be more obstacles put in the way,” Golden said. “This one’s been a big one, but the only reason we’ve gotten this far is because of the efforts of people like you. We will win this. Please keep the faith.”

After Golden spoke, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, led the crowd in a cheer. “We won’t give up,” Prozanski shouted.

Bentz said complexities for the Senate’s Republicans arise from the fact that the bill has had a Senate second reading and is teed up for final action on the Senate floor. Even if it gets sent to a committee on a vote intended to sideline it, for instance, there’s the possibility one of its backers could raise a “motion for reconsideration” that would bring it back to the floor for a vote.

“How would they suggest the process be structured?” Bentz asked. “If I were in (Minority Leader Sen. Herman Baertschiger’s) shoes, those are the questions I’d be asking.”

Although Courtney wields significant power in the Senate, he cannot easily kill the climate bill in order to secure Republicans’ return. One possible first step could be for the Senate to vote to send the bill back to a committee, but such a vote could not happen without a quorum, meaning at least two Republicans would have to return to the Capitol. Another option that would also require a quorum could be a motion to postpone the bill indefinitely, which under Senate rules would mean the bill could not be considered during this legislative session.

The idea to limit Oregon’s emissions with a carrot and a stick have been around in various forms since lawmakers first set carbon reduction goals in 2007. By 2009, lawmakers began following up with proposals to create a market-based program to achieve those targets. A bill was introduced in 2013 under then-Sen. Chris Edwards, a Democrat who took a page from California’s playbook and introduced cap-and-trade legislation. But the controversial proposal never got a vote. The idea was further refined and brought back in 2015, 2017 and 2018.

At the end of the 2018 session, Courtney and House speaker Tina Kotek set up the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction to work on the legislation during the interim. And four work groups met last summer to study various components of the plan, before taking what would become House Bill 2020 on a road show to collect input from across the state.

House Bill 2020 easily passed the House last week, despite the two Democrats voting against it.

Environmentalists swiftly condemned Courtney for declaring the bill lacked the necessary votes, saying it ran counter to what 16 senators said privately in recent days.

Courtney’s statement “is in direct contradiction to what 16 Senators told their constituents to their faces in recent days,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of Renew Oregon. “Instead of having the Senate vote on the floor and stand up to the public, the Senate president is allowing members to hide behind a contradictory statement. Make them vote and answer to their voters and Oregon’s children.”

But Burdick said she and Courtney were ready to do just that when they scheduled the bill for a floor vote last week. It was Republicans, by fleeing, who kept lawmakers from casting their votes on the carbon measure.

In the past, Courtney only brought bills up for a Senate floor vote if they had enough support to pass. That allowed lawmakers from both parties to avoid taking public positions on bills that had a chance of dying anyway, which could hurt them in future elections. But under pressure from liberal Democrats, Courtney changed that practice this year. A high-profile example was a bill that would have lifted a $500,000 limit on the amount injured Oregonians can receive in pain-and-suffering compensation when they sue for damages. It was narrowly voted down in the Senate.

At the 10 a.m. floor session Tuesday, Courtney prefaced his remarks by saying he made them “of my own free will. No one has told me to say this … There’s no strategy to what I’m about to say. There’s just Peter.”

Courtney said the pending bills that would die if Republicans do not return to provide a quorum include proposals “dealing with public safety, dealing with education, dealing with every facet of our lives. Family, (the Preschool Promise program), children and youth especially. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand children suffering.”

He also alluded to proposals to tighten regulations on sexual misconduct in schools and to reform the state’s child welfare system, saying “there are children that are suffering because they didn’t have parents or … They’re in-state and some of them are out-of-state and we’re responsible for them.” Oregon officials have faced criticism this year after news surfaced that they were sending an increasing number of foster children to out-of-state institutions, including several with documented histories of questionable treatment and care of children.

All bills that have not been passed by midnight June 30 will be wiped from the books so if lawmakers were to return for a special session, they would have to reintroduce any bills they want to pass. That legislation would also have to go through the regular committee and floor vote processes.

Reporter Rob Davis contributed to this report.